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A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race, and Human History | [Nicholas Wade]

A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race, and Human History

Fewer ideas have been more toxic or harmful than the idea of the biological reality of race, and with it the idea that humans of different races are biologically different from one another. For this understandable reason, the idea has been banished from polite academic conversation. Arguing that race is more than just a social construct can get a scholar run out of town, or at least off campus, on a rail. Human evolution, the consensus view insists, ended in prehistory. Inconveniently, as Nicholas Wade argues in A Troublesome Inheritance, the consensus view cannot be right.
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Publisher's Summary

Drawing on startling new evidence from the mapping of the genome, an explosive new account of the genetic basis of race and its role in the human story.

Fewer ideas have been more toxic or harmful than the idea of the biological reality of race, and with it the idea that humans of different races are biologically different from one another. For this understandable reason, the idea has been banished from polite academic conversation. Arguing that race is more than just a social construct can get a scholar run out of town, or at least off campus, on a rail. Human evolution, the consensus view insists, ended in prehistory.

Inconveniently, as Nicholas Wade argues in A Troublesome Inheritance, the consensus view cannot be right. And in fact, we know that populations have changed in the past few thousand years - to be lactose tolerant, for example, and to survive at high altitudes. Race is not a bright-line distinction; by definition it means that the more human populations are kept apart, the more they evolve their own distinct traits under the selective pressure known as Darwinian evolution. For many thousands of years, most human populations stayed where they were and grew distinct, not just in outward appearance but in deeper senses as well.

Wade, the longtime journalist covering genetic advances for The New York Times, draws widely on the work of scientists who have made crucial breakthroughs in establishing the reality of recent human evolution. The most provocative claims in this book involve the genetic basis of human social habits. What we might call middle-class social traits - thrift, docility, nonviolence - have been slowly but surely inculcated genetically within agrarian societies, Wade argues. These "values" obviously had a strong cultural component, but Wade points to evidence that agrarian societies evolved away from hunter-gatherer societies in some crucial respects. Also controversial are his findings regarding the genetic basis of traits we associate with intelligence, such as literacy and numeracy, in certain ethnic populations, including the Chinese and Ashkenazi Jews.

Wade believes deeply in the fundamental equality of all human peoples. He also believes that science is best served by pursuing the truth without fear, and if his mission to arrive at a coherent summa of what the new genetic science does and does not tell us about race and human history leads straight into a minefield, then so be it. This will not be the last word on the subject, but it will begin a powerful and overdue conversation.

©2014 Nicholas Wade (P)2014 Penguin Audio

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  •  
    Cassandra 12-10-14
    Cassandra 12-10-14 Member Since 2015
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    "Fascinating page-turner"
    Would you recommend this audiobook to a friend? If so, why?

    Yes, I already have. Ok, so I didn't actually turn any pages, but I did listen to the last two-thirds of the book in one Saturday sitting. This is a subject matter that I'm passionately interested in, but lack any science background to appreciate previous books that I've read. I would recommend it as a good broad introduction to evolution and natural selection.


    What was the most compelling aspect of this narrative?

    The author's theories. He covers many questions that I have pondered on myself, offers some fascinating theories, and compels the reader to continue questioning. There are some interesting rebuttals to Jared Diamonds books. I also appreciated the citing of Fukuyama's books on political order. Wade suggests (I think) that our propensity for different forms of government may be inherited in our genes. This would explain why tribal cultures have difficulty in maintaining democracies.


    What about Alan Sklar’s performance did you like?

    I found the narrator's voice to be pleasant and commanding. I never want the narrator to be the star. If I'm rarely aware of the voice and delivery, then s/he has done a good job. That was the case here.


    Was there a moment in the book that particularly moved you?

    I wouldn't say that I was "moved", but what I read is still with me a week after I listened to it, and it has piqued my interest enough to read more about the subject.
    Having read some of the book reviews on Amazon, I applaud Wade's courage to write such a controversial book.


    9 of 10 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Douglas Auburn, WA, United States 06-01-14
    Douglas Auburn, WA, United States 06-01-14 Member Since 2008

    College English professor who loves classic literature, psychology, neurology and hates pop trash like Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey.

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    "This is NOT Racism!..."

    For decades, feminists railed against the very idea that there were any fundamental biological differences in males and females that would influence basic behavior and social roles (despite clear knowledge about the roles of testosterone and estrogen on behavior!), and along came brain science and showed that yes, there are differences in the male and female brains that lead to different behavioral and social tendencies. And now the same for race. Here is the simple fact, PC or not, like it or not: the closer you are to any group genetically, the more you are going to be like that group. Don't like it? Complain to God or the Big Bang or Darwin. Genetics are genetics. Now, does this excuse things like prejudice, social engineering, genecide? Of course not. Does this mean that there is NO role that envirornment plays in development? Of course not. Does this mean that every woman is the same as every other woman and that every black person is exactly the same as the next? Of course not. It does mean that biology plays a big role in behavior and that the closer you are to someone genetically, the more of their behavioral tendencies you will inherit. That's science. Live with it.

    29 of 39 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Michael Walnut Creek, CA, United States 02-26-15
    Michael Walnut Creek, CA, United States 02-26-15 Member Since 2015

    I focus on fiction, sci-fi, fantasy, science, history, politics and read a lot. I try to review everything I read.

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    "Troublesome Incoherence"

    Why was this book written?

    The author says it is an attempt to dispel the fear of racism that overhangs the discussion of human group differences and to begin to explore the far reaching implications the discovery that human evolution has been recent, copious, and regional.

    I read a lot on the topic of genetics and I have been impressed with the depth and breadth of the research into geographically linked genetic traits. I have seen no fear of racism in any mainstream research. It seems to have been very widely understood that human evolution has been recent, copious and regional. I have seen no dispute about this. So, why was this book written? The book seems to make the argument that it should be OK to discuss genetically influenced behaviors differences between races (as opposed to family, regions, or other well defined classifications.) This is troublesome as the term race has been, and continues to actively be, used to justify segregation, discrimination, injustice, and genocide.

    Wade says “The idea that human populations are different from one another has been actively ignored by academics and policy makers for fear inquiry might promote racism.” I have never heard ANYONE say human populations are not genetically different. Indeed there is substantial research on genetics of various populations and there is a well-developed science studying geographic genotypes.

    As far as I could tell the author never actually proposes a concrete definition of Race. Instead he points out some fuzzy statistical clustering of alleles and calls that race. The number of races he is discussing seems to vary from three to five (or more). The author admits his races, however defined, have fuzzy boarders, so you can never be sure which race to assign an individual.

    Wade repeatedly presents long discussions of other research that (it seems to me) strongly support theories that environment, culture or other non-genetic factors greatly impact societal differences. Yet, Wade then waves these conclusions away pointing out that, although the research seems to support non-genetic factors, surely it is obvious that genetics is really much more likely.

    Wade has quite a few unsubstantiated ideas he feels are obvious.
    Arabs, Afghans, and sub-Saharan Africans are genetically predisposed to tribalism, so we should not expect democracy to work with them; obviously.
    Jews are genetically predisposed to prefer money lending; obviously.
    Language grammar rules must be genetically based; obviously.
    Social institutions differ due to tiny genetic differences in social behavior; obviously.
    Religion must be genetically based; obviously.
    If a race did not have genetically based behavioral differences it would be quick and easy for the race to take on the successful social institutions of a more successful race; obviously.
    It is hard to conceive of any circumstance racism could be successfully resurrected; obviously?
    Resurrected? What planet does this guy live on?
    I suppose white Cambridge men are not exposed to the dark side of racism regularly (except for the British teeth thing).

    Wade says “It would be better to take account of evolutionary differences [in behavior] than to continue to ignore them.” Sure. If there was any evidence I am sure it would be carefully considered. Unfortunately there is only guesswork, not evidence.

    Wade never mentions some very important non-genetic effectors of behavior. Mothers that experience stress during or prior to pregnancy have offspring with altered behavior patterns, infants that see some parental behavior become imprinted and will repeat that behavior when the time comes, parents teach their children complex behaviors, and societies train young humans for decades before adulthood. Such non-genetic biological systems allow humans to alter behavior much more rapidly in dynamic environments than genetic evolution could support. Many of the behaviors Wade discusses (radius of trust, aggression, risk taking, etc.) are exactly the kind of behaviors requiring rapid changes in response to a dynamic environment, thus we would expect these to be overwhelmingly controlled by these non-genetic systems.

    Wade attacks several straw-men, like those people who say human evolution has stopped or has no effect of behavior. I have never heard anyone (other than creationists) say human evolution has stopped, or has no effect on human behavior, only that other factors appear to be overwhelmingly more important and there is little or no evidence of specific genetic influences.

    Wade says his theory is not racist because there is no assertion of superiority (except your race has the violent, slothful, tribal, stupid, unimaginative, dark skinned genes while his race has non-violent, hard working, cooperative, intelligent, innovative, light skinned genes; but these are not value judgments, these are simply facts; obviously.

    Wade criticized Diamond's Germs, Guns and Steel. I am no fan of Germs, Guns, and Steel and I criticized Diamond’s tendency to cherry pick data that agreed with his theory, but Germs, Guns and Steel was a gem compared to A Troublesome Inheritance.

    Most importantly Wade never proposes a single experiment to test any of his numerous guesswork hypotheses.
    This is not science.

    The narration was quite clear but very slow and a little monotonous. I almost never speed up the audio but on my first listen I sped it up to 1.25 then 1.5. On my second listen I did it at 3.0 and it was still quite intelligible (sound-wise).

    11 of 15 people found this review helpful
  •  
    CNV_bountyHunter 11-30-14 Member Since 2014
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    "Scientifically accurate. Historically false"
    Would you say that listening to this book was time well-spent? Why or why not?

    I am a genetic researcher and a collaborator in an international consortium on characterizing the diversity of the human genome across varying populations.The science in this book is up to date. He mentions the paper on EDAR variants in east Asians, which is true. Unfortunately he is outside the loop in academia and got somethings wrong.

    Race is not an issue in science, we acknowledge there are genetic differences in people and we correct for that in GWAS. We do not make claims, as Wade does, such as Africans tend to be more aggressive because of a single gene variant. Aggression is not determined by one gene, and not all Africans carry this trait. A fact Wade neglects in his racially charged book.

    THE LARGEST FLAW is his belief that there was "a genetic change that occurred in Europe after the 1300's that made them more innovative", and subsequently dominating world culture. There is not a shred of evidence backing this claim.

    He completely neglects the fact that China, India, and the Middle East were all innovative societies at one point. Instead he broadly paints a revisionist view of history and claims that China's authoritative government and the Islamic Empires' intolerance is based on genetics and is the explanation why these regions are less influential. China was very innovative at many points in its history and the Arab empire from 700s-1200's was extremely tolerant (relative to fundamentalists) and science flourished for 500 years.

    Europeans are one of the least diverse continental groups of people. How do you explain the innovative, liberal governments in the West to the autocratic governments that still exist in the East?

    IN SUMMARY: The science is up to date, and is valid. But Wade's interpretation of the science is flawed. He is not an expert but a science writer. His historical views are revisionist and racially charged.


    If this book were a movie would you go see it?

    No


    Any additional comments?

    Good on science, bad on interpretation, horrible and revisionist in history. Racially charged, even though he claims it's not.

    9 of 16 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Anthony Byrne 04-03-15 Member Since 2015
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    "Absolutely Worth $20"

    I can see why this book's introduction stresses that bravery is necessary in some scientists. The "SJW" culture that's rising in the modern world regularly responds to people as racists in a knee-jerk fashion. As a paragraph early on notes, the first half or so of the book is grounded in generally agreed upon theory, and then later goes into the author's conclusions, but I could hardly tell where this happened. The conclusions later on seem practically self-evident, once the logical connection earlier on are made.

    While listening to some sections in the middle, I felt that the book was meandering away from its main point, but that information was of course very helpful later on.

    No trouble with the narrator. He uses inflections very conservatively and appropriately, and otherwise has a clear and effective voice. Would listen to another by him.

    I don't know enough on the topic to determine whether Wade's findings are correct or not, but I'm glad that I heard a well-explained point of view on how human history has played out to the present day.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Napalm113 Camp Lejeune NC 03-22-15
    Napalm113 Camp Lejeune NC 03-22-15 Member Since 2014
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    "So close to being a good book..."

    The premiss that a type of society creates evolutionary forces that alter the genome is interesting but is totally unsupported by the data presented.

    This whole book reeks of "I'm not a racist but..." Trying to use evolution to explain racial stereotypes gives evolutionary psychology a bad name.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    A Synthetic Biologist 05-12-14
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    "Racist - but thought provoking"

    I purchased this audiobook because, as a geneticist in a multiracial household, I'm very interested in recent human evolution. For instance, the recent discoveries that non-African people have DNA from other species, such as Neanderthal and Denisovans is very interesting, but popular science (including professional journals) won't broach the potentially difficult implications that real genetic differences exist between people from different parts of the world. Nicholas Wade does mention this fact, and other uncomfortable facts such as different genes, including brain specific genes, appear show different hallmarks of selection difference human populations.

    However, there are two major problems with the book.
    1 - Wade appears to discount the possibility that candidly mentioning differences between races can lead to negative outcomes, even if everything said is true. There are merits to both openness and censorship, but Wade discounts the possibility the truth might lead to negative consequences, even if racial disparities were uncovered.

    2 - Wade is British. He appears to think that British society is the pinnacle of humanity. He ends the book with a defense of British/European influence in the world as stemming from racial superiority (although he tries to get out of this by claiming that Europeans are not "superior", just genetically poised for success and domination). In his view, Africans are not genetically capable of governing themselves in a modern way (otherwise why has African and Haitian society resisted modernizing over the last centuries) and Asians (at least Koreans, Japanese and Han Chinese) are genetically predisposed to being book smart, but not creative. Otherwise why would Japan be so incapable of innovation despite heavy investment (what?), and why would the Chinese steel American trade secrets (because they can?). The final chapter really is quite bizarre, and left a very bad taste in my mouth, like I was ready a racist propaganda pamphlet.

    A few closing thoughts.
    1 - A thesis of this book is that human societies have continued to be under selection for intelligence up until today. Central to this thesis is that smart European people tended to be wealthy, and wealthy people tended to have more children. However, due to the centrality to the premise of this book, I would have expected more data to back these points up. He seems to just think it is self evident.
    2 - A lasting thought from this book is that a society is made up of a population of individuals, who have a certain set of genes. Almost all of these genes are present in most human populations, but with very different distributions. This book claims (and I think twin studies have born out) that much of personality is genetic, so it lets you see your own and other's quirks not necessarily as personal shortcomings, but as the result stochastic pairing of genetic traits, which happened to exist in your parents.
    3 - Reading this book is a weird experience, because it is full of thought provoking concepts, but discussing them amongst friends makes you feel like a racist. Probably because reading this book tends to make you more racist.

    In conclusion - This book will either make you gag, or make you more racist. However, some of the racism is thought provoking. But it is still racist, and do you really want to mull over the merits of being racist? If so, then this book is for you.

    23 of 48 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Gary Las Cruces, NM, United States 05-15-14
    Gary Las Cruces, NM, United States 05-15-14 Member Since 2015

    Letting the rest of the world go by

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    "Generalities and Platitudes make not a conclusion"

    I did listen to the whole book. I regret that.

    He quotes Darwin throughout the book to make some of his points about specialization due to human development. The real great thing about Darwin's book "Origin of Species" is the book is a guide book on how to use critical reasoning in the development of a controversial idea. The author violates all of the necessary steps in order to present an argument. He gives easily shot down straw-man arguments such as "Jared Diamond says that race plays no part in civilization's growth in the development of civilizations". Now, Diamond days say that but it doesn't mean his bigger theme is wrong, geography, plant growth, animal availability and so on doesn't make a difference while race might make a small contribution. (BTW, Diamond's book is much, much better than this one).

    He stacks the deck in favor of his thesis. He defines his terms to most favor his argument. Genes and clusters on the genome can determine a person's "race" (I put it in quotes only because he uses that definition for race. That gives him the most flexibility to see the world in terms of race. Scots, Irish and French would fall under that definition as a race, but he doesn't explicitly refer to that subset as a race).

    He tells a lot of "just so stories" of how the Leopard got his spots, or in this case why the Chinese is less tolerant than the English (an example he does give). He does hypothesize a really rapid change in our Genome and this leads to different institutions because of different behavior because of genetic differences between races.

    Science uses induction to prove, that is going from the particular to the general, the author usually doesn't go from the particular to the general (read Darwin, on how to do that most marvelously). He usually goes from the general to the general thus thinking he's proved his point. He does use some particular data but he can do that poorly, once he said "200 people of Ashkenazim descent in a hospital in Israel have a genetic variant of one gene and 1/3 of them were engineers, scientist or lawyers" much higher than the general population. Wow, that statement by itself is not enough to show anything. His editor should not have allowed that in the book. It doesn't mean that the variant doesn't map to intelligence, but you need another set of data to demonstrate it.

    He uses quotes frequently and excerpts from Thomas Sowell's platitudes to support his positions. Generalities in the form of platitudes prove nothing. Sowell is best left on the pages of the "Washington Times". He also quotes platitudes from Niall Ferguson on capitalism and how the West is superior to the East because of behavior due to our genetics thru race. If you want to write a serious book, don't quote Ferguson on economics (if you ever want to see why just read Paul Krugman's blog when he points out why Ferguson is out of his depth in the field of economics).

    He does quote from Pinker's book, "Better Angels of our Nature", and says the Pinker was afraid to use race and stayed away from that as explanation. That's true, but if you read the book (and I have), Pinker doesn't shy away from a whole host of other reason beyond genetic differences which explains the decline of violence over time that have nothing to do with genetic differences due to race.

    Darwin, in his book, would always word the counter argument to his thesis in the best terms possible before he shot it down. This author doesn't really bring up counter arguments. If you bring up intelligence between races, you should bring up the "Flynn Effect", the fact that IQs when normalized to 1916 have gone up over 15 points. Either we have gotten a lot smarter or there is something in the culture/environment that makes us perform better on test that measure our abstract reasoning or as the author would conclude our genes made us smarter. I don't have the answer, but I do know if I were writing a book to persuade the reader to my belief I would have mentioned items that seem to contradict my thesis. There were a lot of other points the author should have brought up in order to shot down, but he doesn't. I'm left to guess he really doesn't have a good counter argument?

    It's a pity the author did such a poor job. There can be some merit to his thesis, but this book doesn't provide any support for it. Unfortunately, this book will appeal to some who aren't attuned to critical reasoning and prefer generalities and platitudes, and I highly don't recommend it.

    10 of 29 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Bonnie B. Matheson Charlottesville, VA United States 01-18-15
    Bonnie B. Matheson Charlottesville, VA United States 01-18-15 Member Since 2013

    BonnieB23

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    "Brave Book!"

    Good book on a very sensitive subject. Enjoyed the narrator's serious delivery.
    Why do they want 8 more words? Huh?

    0 of 1 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Vladimir Kushnir Darien, CT United States 05-21-14
    Vladimir Kushnir Darien, CT United States 05-21-14 Member Since 2009

    vkus

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    "Interesting subject but pure speculation"
    What disappointed you about A Troublesome Inheritance?

    The author has chosen an interesting subject. However, aside from describing two experiments by some Russian scientist with rats and foxes, the rest of the book is pure speculation. The book is full of guesses, ideas, hypothesis, but other than in the two cases mentioned above, there is absolutely no description of any proof, experiments, etc.


    What could Nicholas Wade have done to make this a more enjoyable book for you?

    To stick to science as opposed to description of what the author considers likely or might have been.


    5 of 18 people found this review helpful

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